When the Blue Jay Listening Room first opened its doors Aug. 18, 2017 in Jacksonville Beach, owner Cara Murphy hoped to create an intimate space for music lovers to really hear the music being played, listen to the stories and engage with the artists on a personal level.
No audience chatter, no rowdy bar noise or big flashy stage acts; just a warm, inviting environment catering to a comfortable listening experience with a soft glow and artfully arranged vignettes of cozy seating nestled close to the stage. It’s exactly the kind of space that is struggling to find safe and financially sound footing as the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten live performance venues.
“I am working diligently to come up with a plan to reopen that is safe and sustainable. This will obviously entail all of the necessary safety precautions. So, I’m just trying to figure out how to do this with the most people but at the same time the least amount of people for it to be sustainable,” says Murphy. “I want show goers and artists alike to feel safe and I want to be able to provide some live music for our community because I think that’s something that would really raise morale right now.”
An online fundraising campaign established by local musician Joshua Bowlus is raising money to help the Blue Jay stay afloat at https://gf.me/u/yk3szb. To date, the fundraiser has reached $7,043 of its $10,000 goal.
There is also a virtual auction for a three-day stay at the Gallery House, a 3,000 square-foot, four-bedroom vacation rental owned by Lanie and Craig Veech just five blocks from the oceanfront in Jacksonville Beach. Bids are accepted through Dec. 25, 2020 and all of the proceeds will benefit the Blue Jay ( https://www.facebook.com/1154457948/posts/10223197650946983/).
“I am not the first one to ask for help,” reasons Murphy. “But I realized if I ever was going to ask for help, a pandemic is a pretty damn good reason.”
Like other live performance venues, the Blue Jay located at 2457 Third Street S. was forced to close in early March as the novel coronavirus tightened its grip. And like other business owners, Murphy had no way of knowing what was to come. The venue hosted its last show was March 14, hoping things would soon return to normal. Shutting down for a couple weeks wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t insurmountable either.
“I think at the time I knew at least for a few weeks. I had absolutely no idea what that meant at the time. You know how when hurricane season comes around and everyone turns into a meteorologist, it’s the same thing with this. All of a sudden, everybody became scientists and doctors and they’re giving their predictions but in reality, we have absolutely no idea,” she says. “Even now, I think the unknown has been the most difficult for me. I’m a business owner which in turn makes me a planner. I have no idea what to do.”
As weeks turned into months, Murphy looked outside the box for creative solutions to engage her customers, promote the artists and maintain even a trickle of a revenue stream. She hosted performances on a virtual stage called ‘Songs from Another Room’ and donations were coming in at first. But an over saturation of live streaming events quickly tempered online contributions.
“People were streaming from their prospective homes and studios and music shops or whatever. We did a few at Blue Jay and then to be honest, people were not as willing to donate as they were at first so it kind of fizzled a little bit. I’m trying to figure out now how I can live stream and make money from it. At first people were donating because they were like ‘they just need to get by’ but just as we are running out of money, people are realizing ‘I need to hold on to my money because I don’t know when I am going to be able to go back to work’. I think any live music whether it’s virtual or what have you is always special but there’s nothing that quite compares to seeing music in person in any capacity but specifically in a listening room.”
The Blue Jay was set to reopen July 22 but then the beaches kind of became a hotspot, forcing Murphy to remain closed and wait it out. “It didn’t seem right for everyone to be closing their doors around me while I’m like ‘we’re opening’,” she says. “That’s irresponsible. But we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.
With a limited capacity of 100, reopening at 50 percent may be both a blessing and a curse. “I’m torn. I think it will be beneficial eventually in that I think people will be much more willing to attend smaller stuff as opposed to like being at a stadium show,” muses Murphy. “My biggest challenge is going to be figuring out how many people I can fit in there and also successfully socially distance. I have to figure out what my magic number is for it to be sustainable and also safe. I hope I can do that within the next few months.”
There’s still much left to be determined for performance spaces that rely on ticket prices and bar sales to cover the overhead, pay staff and performers. “We’re all trying to stay afloat here,” says Murphy, who was able to secure a small PPP loan to carry her through the last few unsteady months. But it’s the next wave that leaves her feeling shaky about the future.
“The reason that the PPP loan is not beneficial to music venues is because our ecosystem is completely different. We don’t just open the doors and stuff happens. We plan six months in advance. Obviously, I’m grateful for anything at the moment, a $10,000 PPP loan is only beneficial for a little while.”
Without federal assistance from such proposed programs as the Save Or Stages Act, spaces like Blue Jay may not survive. “If that goes through, that would be everything. We don’t know when we will find out about that but hopefully that will pass,” she says. “It is specific to our industry and knowing that our ecosystem is different. Having a grant or act or bill that is specific to the music industry is huge. I’m not saying it’s our only hope but it’s definitely a big one.”
Six months after the last in-person show, Murphy says she’s struggling with the inevitable possibility that her doors could stay closed for the remainder of the year.
“It’s stressful. I’m just taking one day at a time. It has been quite a challenge. None of us know how to navigate this, obviously. I’m just trying to figure this out as I go and trying to figure out how the hell to make my business survive,” she says. “The music industry is in trouble and my hope is that this doesn’t last too much longer. But again, it’s the unknown. We have no idea.”